Guest Post: High Stakes vs. Low Stakes Writing

This post is the fourth in our series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes (first post; second post; third post). Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

The majority of students who file into our writing classrooms often approach the subject with apprehension and/or dread. The fear of being required to write a college essay generates a palpable anxiety for many students. Our students have been trained to see writing as a “high stakes” activity. In fact the moment the essay is assigned, many students want to know what’s it worth or how much does it count towards my final grade? Students have been conditioned to assess the stakes of the writing they have been asked to complete for class. The real question they are asking is does this writing matter?

The conventional wisdom dictates that high stakes writing—like the college essay—matters, while low stakes writing—possibly observation memos, lab reports, or journal entries—don’t matter as much by both student definitions and the ways we choose to grade or respond to the work. We believe blogging assignments bridge the divide between low and high stakes writing. Blogging assignments often matter because they are both public and personal. Our students have a vested interest in saying something about the subjects they have chosen to blog about. However, students often feel this type of writing mirrors other forms of low stakes writing. Many times students view low stakes writing assignments as less concerned with the actual writing (focused on grammar, form, or style) and more invested in the information or ideas communicated. The result often represents thoughtful and engaged writing achieved without the typical anxiety or hand wringing that accompanies more formal assignments.

Peter Elbow suggests we should “assign lots of low stakes writing, students are much less liable to be held back by fear or inability to put what they know on paper when they come to high stakes writing.”[1] Elbow sees low stakes writing as a way to for students to work out ideas or concepts without the worry of getting the answer wrong. We would contend that blogging achieves these goals, but also provides the opportunity for the low stakes writing to generate a dialogue between the writer and reader. Students get to put their ideas on paper, but also possibly see how the reader reacts or responds to the writing.

In Chris’s class, students are actively encouraged to rewrite and revise their blog posts and many students generate a series of blogs that are in conversation with the other writers in the class. This low stakes writing becomes a collaborative exercise and students often find themselves teaching one another. In Kassia’s class, students blog about topics that may not be considered “formal” essay questions in favor of topics valuing personal experience and real-world examples. For instance, in her literature class, students are asked to find links to news reports or articles that pertain to the subject being discussed in class and explain how these outside readings are making connections to class readings. At other times, they may be asked to explain how they personally relate to the literature. In either case, students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in a “safe” space rather than having to write for a test.

Elbow clearly sees a role for both low stakes and high stakes writing in the classroom environment. However there are clear benefits to incorporating low stakes projects in your syllabus, including:

  • Students can become more invested in the subject matter of a course through low stakes writing and find their own language to discuss issues. While we might not assign a paper for every unit or topic, we can assign a short, low stakes assignment to gauge student comprehension.
  • Because low stakes writing is often condensed or more focused, students produce writing with a more clear and lively voice.
  • Frequent low stakes writing assignments can improve high stakes writing assignments proving the old adage “practice makes perfect.” Students become more comfortable with the writing process.
  • Low stakes writing can help educators understand how students understand the course material and use the information we are presenting. Low stakes writing assignments can serve as a mirror to our teaching.
  • Consistently assigned low stakes writing assignments can be used to encourage students to keep up with reading.
  • Finally, Elbow believes some low stakes writing should be “zero response” assignments. These projects do not require or call for instructors to respond to the writing, but only noting the completion. Students need to understand they’re being read but don’t have to navigate a response from a teacher.

While these benefits are not solely designed for blog assignments, we clearly see how having our students blog can achieve these goals easily. Blogging becomes low stakes writing when designed with these outcomes in mind. In our classes …

  • Students control the topics of the blogs, but they must demonstrate some subject mastery in how these topics are discussed or how they formulate the post.
  • Students write very clearly within a narrowly defined topic—often defined by their own passion or interests. We have students effectively develop an authentic sense of voice through these projects.
  • Students don’t seem to dread blog writing and often evaluate these projects as their favorite type of writing. We have both had students comment that blogging helped them produce better essays.
  • Finally, we enjoy reading their blog posts and participating in the conversation. Their passion makes assessing the assignment more enjoyable and both of us find we often limit the way we respond to these exercises. Too often instructors feel compelled to over-respond to students, but the inherent nature of the blog has helped us be more concise and targeted when commenting on our students’ work.

We hope everyone has enjoyed our thoughts on blogging as an alternative to the traditional writing assignment, and we hope you’ll consider assigning a blog in the future.

To see other perspectives on low stakes and high stakes writing, watch…


[1] “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” by Peter Elbow. New Directions For Teaching And Learning, No. 69, Spring 1997

LearningStudio Threaded Discussions Enhancements

New features just launched in Pearson LearningStudio Threaded Discussions Preferences!

Enhancements and changes:

  • New features added to the Threaded Discussion Preferences found in Course Admin.
    Threaded Discussion Preferences

    • Hide topics from students for all Threaded Discussions
      • Settings can be enabled at both course-level as a default and also at topic level (override)
      • Course-level and topic-level settings will be duped if course copy tool is utilized.
    • Post first: The instructor has the ability to require students to respond to a given topic prompt prior to seeing the responses by their peers.
      • Settings can be enabled at both course-level as a default and also at topic level (override)
      • Course-level and topic-level settings will be duped if course copy tool is utilized.
    • Display number of responses for a topic: A message count for a topic is displayed for both instructors and students.
      • This feature can be enabled/disabled at the Course Admin level.

Threaded Discussion preferences (and other course admin settings) will be copied over when using the Course Copy tool

Instructor View from “Add Topic” screen from Author for Threaded Discussion

Instructor View from "Add Topic" screen from Author for Threaded Discussion

Course View of Threads (Instructor and Student)

Course View of Threads (Instructor and Student)

The Threaded Discussion Preferences page has been updated on our website to reflect these new enhancements.

LearningStudio Gradebook Enhancements (Instructor)

The Pearson LearningStudio Gradebook enhancements launched today!

The enhancements includes the following: (select links below for feature descriptions)

Gradebook how-to documents and videos have been updated on our website to reflect these new enhancements.

Watch a video recording of the December 11th webinar on the enhancements.

More webinars will be offered in January on these enhancements. View the full schedule on our website.

Guest Post: What to Consider when Grading Blogs

This post is the third in our series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes (first post; second post). Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

One of the biggest challenges of assigning blogs or any other form of new media composition is how to grade the writing or the project. Blogs can be graded in multiple ways depending upon what you want to emphasize in your classroom, what goals you want students to meet, or what skills you want students to acquire throughout the process. Below are merely a few suggestions for how you might grade a blog based on our experiences.

Individual posts (Kassia’s method):
I grade student blogs based on individual postings to a class blogsite. All students submit to the site, but each blog is graded on the individual’s ability to meet the following criteria.

1. Word Count:
Decide up front how long you want the blogs to be. This may vary depending on what the purpose of the assignment. I use blogs as a type of reading response, so I typically ask my students to write 300-500 words in a literature class or 500-700 words in a writing course. Students know that if they fail to meet the word count, points will be deducted.

2. Use of New Media:
Take advantage of the new media elements that blogging can provide. Blogs should look and feel different than a traditional paper visually. Students in my classes are required to include at least one new media component to the blog, whether that’s a picture, a hyperlink, a video, or a gif. I let them choose where to place it, depending on what makes the most sense to them. I am often surprised that students go above and beyond with these elements often electing to include multiple new media components in one post.

3. Adherence to a prompt:
Create a blogging prompt if you are weary of letting the students go too far off the grid. You can do this by posing a question to the class and having them respond in blog form or you can have ready made blogging assignments. Again, these may vary depending on the course and purpose of the blog. In my rhetoric and the cinema class we had five prompts each dealing with a different aspect of the film industry: special effects, trailers, sound, message, and location. You can choose how specific you want the prompt to be, but I try to leave mine as open to interpretation as possible so that students feel they have some creative license over their writing.

4. Use of secondary sources (hyperlinks or text-based material):
Ask students to use secondary sources to compliment their writing. These sources could be links to other sites talking about similar issues or they could be traditional text based sources that they are reading in class. Because I use blogging as a form of reading response, I often mix the two of these. You decide how formal or informal you want the citations to be and the minimum amount of citations you will require students to use.

5. Cohesion to the site:
Create and cultivate an online classroom ethos and ask students to maintain the image with their posts. Because my classes use blogging as a means of creating classroom community, the students help me design the site by choosing the fonts, colors, and background. In my Rhetoric of the Cinema course, we treated our blogsite like Rottentomatoes, crafting our own rating system for the movies. Each class chose their own logo with which to rate the movies, and every student used the same image in each of their posts, which helped establish a class brand. There are many ways to brand the class while still maintaining the individuality of each post/ writer.

6. Audience Response:
Tell students to comment on each others’ posts thus generating an audience for their writing. In the past, Chris Foree and I have asked our individual classes to comment on each other’s blogsites in order to help generate more traffic to the site and broaden the writing community even further. Of course, because the site is online, outside readers are always welcome to comment on the posts, but asking the students to do this for each other ensures audience participation. I typically ask my students to comment on at least three of their peers’ posts whether that be something they found interesting or something they would like to hear more about. I grade on whether or not they completed the comment not on the response itself. However, I do discourage one word responses such as “cool,” hoping they will be a bit more specific about what was “cool” in the blog.

Collective Posts (Chris’ method):
My assignment tends to be a little different, because my students write in blog groups. Three or four students manage the blog site together and post during the course of the semester. Here are some additional aspects about blogging to consider should you decide to use blog groups within your classroom.

1. Aesthetics:
The aesthetics of the site become much more important when students write in blog groups. The group must decide on a theme that fits their topic and platform that will present their subject matter using visual rhetoric. Elements of visual rhetoric include the background, color scheme, fonts, headings, and images. All of these elements must be working together to form a cohesive blog that communicates its argument visually.

2. Revision:
I allow students to revise the entire blog up until the final day of class. That provides enough time for each member of the blogging community to read each others’ posts and discuss how each one fits into the group’s narrative or image. Students are encouraged to offer advice and feedback within their blogging groups on a regular basis.

3. Collaboration:
I want the blog posts to work together, and each student must work to build a cohesive “narrative” for the blog website. Thus, much of their grade is based upon ideas of collaboration and how well they perform the task of both author and editor.While I do grade the individual performance following the criteria that Kassia has outlined above,  I also grade the group effort—how well the authors work together to create a blog site that works in harmony to generate an authentic conversation.

For more information about how to grade blogs, check out this article: “Evaluating Classroom Blogs.”

LearningStudio Gradebook Enhancement Announcement

An early enhancement to the Pearson LearningStudio Gradebook just launched!

Email & Expand/Collapse Comments from within the Gradebook

New Grade Detail View: allows instructors to send an email directly from the gradebook and expand/collapse the comments window. The Grade Detail view appears when you select a student name from an assignment in the gradebook or dropbox, or when you select a student score/grade.

Selecting the Email button will open a separate window to compose and send an email to the student directly from the gradebook.

Grade Details View: Email and Expand or Collapse Comments window

Selecting the new Comments button from within the Grade Details View will expand the comments box

Click the Comments button to expand the window to provide comments and feedback to the students.

Performance improvements:
Previously, when any data was changed, all of the data on the screen would refresh. Now, only the data that was changed is refreshed, reducing the data load on the servers.

Performance for courses with a large number of enrollments is improved, mitigating timeouts for programs offering large courses.

What enhancements are coming December 16th?

We anticipate the launch of the features below to be December 16, 2013.

  • Send email directly from an assignment view in the Gradebook
  • User Interface changes
  • Auto scoring
  • Assign Zero grade for work not submitted
  • Hide Item Summary
  • Rubrics: Build and Assess

We will continue to offer webinars December 11 and in January on these enhancements. View the full schedule on our website.

Documentation and detailed information about the gradebook enhancements will be sent next week.

Guest Post: Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Blog in Your Classroom

This post is the second in our series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes. Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

1. Blogging is a less formal writing style familiar to many students.
Students are taught how to write in college to meet the demands of the academy, but teaching students to blog in a sophisticated manner may better serve the students in the long run. Students may never write another formal essay after college, but they may create their own blogs or approximate the less-formal style of writing. Thus, teaching them to blog and incorporating it into the classroom helps encourage lifelong writing habits.

2. Students understand writing in this capacity.
Many students already have their own blogsites, and may be posting on a normal basis. Furthermore, students are receiving the news from popular sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, which present the information in blog form. Students are accustomed to reading and writing in this type of forum, so writing in this style seems natural to them, and when presented in this manner, is a transferable life skill that they can use beyond college. Because students already consume this genre of writing, they often understand the specific needs or desires of the audience—a key part of any successful piece of writing.

3. Blogging exposes students to ideas of voice.
Blogging teaches students to cultivate their own unique writing voice rather than to formalize their writing with professional jargon. Students need to know how to communicate within their fields, but they also need to know how to address the public that may or may not understand certain professional terms. Blogging teaches students how to address a broader based community, and because blogging is so popular, students need to cultivate a voice that attracts and maintains the interest of the public in order to gain traffic to the site.

4. Blogging allows students to engage with new media.
Technology is changing the way students write and work with language in general. Infographics, memes, and gifs are becoming popular forms of creating arguments. Students need to learn how to use these tools in order to keep up with growing trends. Many students may be entering fields where this technology will be of benefit to them and their employers, especially during presentations. Students should be equipped with up to date skills, which will only enhance their marketability. We often take for granted that students have “expertise” with these technologies, but this is often not the case and working with new media allows the students to truly develop these marketable skills.

5. Blogging helps students develop a more conscience (or thoughtful) online presence.
Creating an online presence has never been more important. Employers are now looking at sites such as Twitter and Facebook before making decisions about who to hire. If a student has practiced cultivating online skills in the class through blogging, employers are sure to take notice. If an employer does a google search online, he or she might stumble upon the blogsite, allowing him or her to get a better idea about the student. Thus, by introducing blogging into our classrooms, we are effectively teaching students to be responsible with their online image and allowing them to create a persona that extends beyond their Facebook page and status updates.

6. Blogging allows students to get feedback from a real audience.
We talk about audience in the classroom: how to write for specific audiences, how writing changes depending on the audience, and how audience perception of a work cannot be ignored. However, blogging allows us to practice what we preach. When students blog, they are not merely writing to us as the teachers, they are writing to a larger community of readers on the internet. These outside readers have the ability to comment, critique, or converse with the student writers making the writing interactive.

7. Blogging encourages creative thinking through design, tone, style, etc.
Students often become tethered to formulas or models when constructing traditional writing. Being required to follow specific guidelines often results in students reproducing writing styles that have worked in the past. Blogging requires students to think about the act of composing beyond words on the page. The freedom to incorporate graphics, video, or audio often encourages students to rethink the way they want to approach a given subject. When students are asked to consider design, style, and tone within their writing in the same way we teach format for written compositions, then they are often required to engage in both creative and critical thinking to achieve the appropriate rhetorical stance.

8. Blogging positions writing as activism, service, criticism, or engagement.
Because blogging incorporates a real audience for our student writers, we can offer generate assignments that have real world consequences. A student may write a paper on homelessness and have an enlightening or moving experience, but the inclusion of other media and an audience often changes the way a student might choose to blog about homelessness. The immediacy of blogging implies a desire for the writer to spur the readers to think, do, or believe something, therefore giving students a sense of agency not found in more traditional assignments. The nature of blogging makes it the ideal vehicle to ask students to think about issues of activism, service, and social justice.

9. Blogging helps build classroom communities.
Writing is meant to be shared, and we frequently teach our students that writing affords them the opportunity to have their voices heard. Blogging allows the students to read and comment on each other’s work in a shared space. When students are able to read each others’ posts they are learning from each other as well as from the instructor. They are also able to see a variety of perspectives, which can prompt or encourage further class discussion over a topic. Students report that sharing a blog is “less scary” than sharing an essay. Sharing the writing with one another helps the class feel more united and takes the classroom discussion beyond the class itself.

10. Blogging can be used in almost any classroom for a variety of purposes.
Professors can choose to use either a classroom blog site where all students post their blogs, have students create their own individual blogsites, or have groups of students create different blogsites centered on a common interest. For examples, please see Goinggothic.blogspot.com, studentskeepitreel.blogspot.com, or the student Blogroll at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com. Professors may choose to provide blogging prompts as guides or they may allow students to use the blogs as a free-writing space. Please stay tuned for our future posting about how to grade blogs.

Next up: How Kassia and Chris address the mechanics of blog use in their classes. 

Why we use Blogs in the Classroom

This post kicks off a series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes. Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

Why we choose to blog

As a writing instructor, I ultimately want my students to leave my class with a lifelong love of writing. It is my hope that students will find writing enjoyable rather than burdensome or tedious. I find that assigning blogs in the classroom along with more traditional writing assignments, like a research paper, helps students to see how they can take the writing skills they have acquired in my class beyond college. The truth is students may not think of themselves as writers, but they are writing everyday on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. They may never see themselves as novelists or journalists, but they can easily see themselves as bloggers. It is our responsibility to expose students to multiple modes of writing, and incorporating blogging into the curriculum is one way to push students to think about writing both inside and outside the classroom.

–Kassia Waggoner

I believe students often view writing as both a solitary activity and a private one. I use blogging in the classroom to disrupt this view of writing. I contend that all written communication is a dialogic—there is always an intended reader (even if it is author him- or herself) and we use writing to make our ideas clear. Blogging makes the dialogical process very real and tangible for students. The ability to write something and allow others to read it and possibly comment on their writing awakens a more nuanced understanding of audience. I would also suggest blogging has the potential to demonstrate the power of writing to students who often see the production of texts as a task or chore. In my previous life in “Corporate America,” I often experienced writing as collaborative exercise—putting together a presentation or co-authoring a report with a team. I want my students to acquire skills in the writing classroom that I think could be transferable, therefore I construct blog assignments that are collaborative in nature. My students work in teams to create a blog and must work together to make sure all the individual postings represent a cohesive theme and tone for the reader. They must read, edit, and contribute to each other’s postings to achieve this goal. I hope these experiences will help redefine their concept of writing outside the classroom.

–Christopher Foreé

Stay tuned for more of their blogging insights in the coming weeks!